Study says no firm estimate on costs to raise a family a problem for government

Feds don't know cost of children: study

OTTAWA — Jessica Wesley has been a mom for all of two months, but she and her husband are already thinking that one child might be all their finances can handle.

As her Toronto family confronts looming expenses like child care, rent and clothing, Wesley says she doesn’t know what the final tally will be — only that it will be high.

Justin Trudeau’s federal government is in a similar boat.

Ottawa doesn’t have a bead on just how much it costs to raise a child in Canada, says a new study, prompting some experts to wonder if politics and ideology are trumping evidence when it comes to making decisions on social policy.

The paper, sponsored by the anti-poverty group Campaign 2000, says governments need a better way of measuring cost to ensure family benefits and anti-poverty initiatives are of help to those who need it the most.

“It makes us hesitant,” Wesley, 31, says of the costs involved with raising her son, Ken.

“One of the factors that makes us think he’ll probably be our only little guy is the cost involved.”

Wesley has friends with newborn babies — and similar concerns.

The cost of raising a child ranges from about $5,000 a year to more than $12,000, depending on which estimate one looks at and whether those estimates incorporate variables like child care, transportation, food and housing. Thanks to a lack of data and no clear consensus on how best to measure the cost, disputes about accuracy abound.

Such lack of certaintly leaves a lot of leeway for political and ideological preferences to take over and drive policy changes, said Sid Frankel, an associate professor of social work at the University of Manitoba, and co-author of the study.

“Government and others speak a lot about evidence-based policy and here’s an essential area of evidence that has essentially been ignored.”

The Liberals replaced the previous Conservative government’s universal child care benefit with an income-tested one worth about $23 billion a year. They argue the new Canada Child Benefit provides more money monthly to 87 per cent of families.

Trudeau has repeatedly said his goal is to help middle-class Canadian families cover what he calls the high cost of raising children through tax cuts and higher benefit payments. The government is also finalizing child-care funding agreements with provinces in a bid to bring down the cost of child care.

Without a clear sense of how much it costs families in various places across Canada with a variety of income levels, it’s difficult to determine just how much help the benefit provides, Frankel said.

For the Wesleys, the child benefit allows the couple to set aside some money for their two-month-old son’s future.

For Joy Black, a 55-year-old single mother who lives in Winnipeg, the extra couple of hundred dollars a month is helpful, but far from enough. The money vanishes if her two growing teenagers need new shoes, or if the costs of household staples go up.

“The cost of everything has skyrocketed,” Black said.

“Food, clothing, shoes — it’s crazy. I don’t even buy clothing. I depend on local charities and churches and stuff for clothes because I just can’t afford to buy them clothes.”

The study’s authors will be on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to push the government for a standard budget for families of various locales and income levels — something they say could help more than just governments.

A true estimate of the cost of raising children would help courts make more informed decisions about compensating parents for child-care costs, and better enable financial advisers to help families make decisions about their future.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press